Turkey diplomatic spat could boost Erdogan referendum quest

AP News
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Posted: Mar 13, 2017 1:59 PM

Turkey's spiraling diplomatic spat with European countries may be just what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to boost his quest to expand his powers, officials and observers say.

Barbs and insults have been traded between Turkey and European nations, with Erdogan suggesting "Nazi remnants" were present in Germany and the Netherlands. Turkish ministers have been barred from making campaign speeches in some countries and riot police clashed with Turkish pro-government demonstrators in the Netherlands.

The situation has alarmed European officials, but some say Erdogan is benefiting ahead of an April 16 constitutional reforms referendum to greatly expand his powers.

"We shouldn't be angry at the Germans and the Dutch. We should perhaps thank them a little," said Huseyin Kocabiyik, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, speaking late Sunday on pro-government A Haber news channel.

"They contributed to our 'yes' votes by at least two points," Kocabiyik said. "You can be sure of it. As a retired former political adviser and a researcher, I can say for sure that these will cause a substantial rise in the votes of our citizens living in Europe, while inside Turkey, it will affect both the undecided voters and even some voters from the 'no' camp."

Turkey's government has been campaigning hard on the "yes" vote, including sending a variety of ministers and officials to deliver speeches to Turkey's sizeable diaspora communities who are eligible to vote, including in Germany and the Netherlands.

Opinion polls have indicated the referendum could be a tight race. The latest chapter in Turkey's diplomatic disputes, complete with a Turkish minister being escorted out of the country, riot police fighting Turks in Rotterdam and the Turkish foreign minister's plane being denied permission to land in the country, has fuelled nationalism and could tip the balance in favor of the "yes" vote.

Whether that happens remains to be seen.

"It's difficult to predict what effect it will have on the referendum," Giray Sadik, associate professor of political science at Ankara's Yildirim Beyazit University, said.

But as European countries — many already facing the rise of nationalism at home — react with increasing alarm to Turkey, many voters there could increasingly rally behind a man they perceive as a strong leader who will fight for their country's rightful place in the world order and refuse to be cowed by Europeans.

The dispute with the Netherlands erupted over the weekend, with the Dutch government citing security concerns for refusing landing permission for a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to speak at a "yes" campaign rally in Rotterdam.

Hours later, Turkey's family affairs minister was prevented from entering her country's diplomatic compound in the same city and escorted back to Germany from where she had entered the country. Scuffles soon broke out between Turkish protesters and Dutch riot police.

Ankara was furious, with Erdogan calling the Dutch "Nazi remnants" and describing them as fascists. He had launched similar barbs at Germany in the previous weeks after several local authorities refused to allow Turkish referendum campaigns in their areas, also citing security concerns.

Slamming foreign governments for what many Turks perceive as grave slights against their national pride could have a galvanizing effect on the electorate, not least on the sizeable voting pool of expatriate Turks living elsewhere in Europe.

Images of their countrymen being attacked by Dutch police dogs during the Rotterdam clashes, and by a video of a Dutch police official telling the family affairs minister to leave the country or face arrest have helped fuel the outrage.

The ruling Justice and Development Party needed "an emergency victimization and an emergency closing of the ranks," Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for the daily Hurriyet newspaper, said. "The Netherlands, with its fascism, its low-quality and impertinence, has met these needs beautifully."